Louisville running back Jeremy Wright (28) runs ahead of North Carolina defender Gene Robinson (1) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville went from cruising to 3-0 to desperately trying to remain undefeated.
Andrew Johnson deflected a fourth-down pass in the end zone by North Carolina's Bryn Renner with 1:53 left to give the Cardinals a 39-34 victory against the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Leading 36-7 at halftime behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and up by 25 early in the fourth quarter, Louisville survived a 20-point rally by Renner, who passed for five touchdowns and just saw a sixth go off Johnson's fingertips.
"We had to come up with a big-time play in a big-time game," Johnson said. "I saw (Tar Heels receiver Erik Highsmith) jump and I knew I would outjump him, so I got my hand on the ball and tried to strip the ball. ... But with (losing) such a big lead, no coach should be happy."
Cardinals Coach Charlie Strong certainly wasn't, despite the best start of his three-year tenure. While Louisville has proven it can score quickly and in bunches, it has also allowed Kentucky and Missouri State to regroup in the second half.
That annoying pattern almost cost them against the Tar Heels (1-2).
"At the end of the day we still won the football game," Strong said. "We have us a good team and we just need to learn how to finish."
Louisville scored on its first six possessions thanks to three first-half touchdowns and 218 yards by Bridgewater. He finished 23 of 28 for 279.
Renner settled down from a rough first half to rally the Tar Heels (1-2) from a 36-7 deficit with four second-half touchdowns, including a screen pass to Romar Morris for a 50-yard touchdown with 4:23 remaining.
North Carolina's Norkeithus Otis then forced Adrian Bushell to fumble the ensuing kickoff, and the Tar Heels recovered at the Cardinals' 10. But after moving to the 3, North Carolina was penalized for a false start. Two plays later Renner's pass for Highsmith was batted away by Johnson.
Renner was 26-of-41 passing for 363 yards with one interception.
"I thought second half we came back and competed our butts off," Renner said.
It marked a second consecutive close loss for North Carolina (1-2), which rallied from a 21-14 deficit to briefly lead at Wake Forest before ultimately falling 28-27. It was also the Tar Heels second straight game without star tailback Giovani Bernard. Receiver Jheranie Boyd also sat out.
At the start, North Carolina was out of sync and dug its hole with two first-half turnovers that Louisville quickly converted.
"We came out playing football from another universe or something," Tar Heels tight end Eric Ebron said.
Right after Louisville marched 62 yards for its first touchdown and a 6-0 lead, Renner lofted a pass right at Louisville's Marcus Smith.
Bridgewater made it 12-0 on the next play, eluding the rush to find Charles Gaines wide open in the end zone on a post pattern.
After John Wallace's 22-yard field goal made it 15-0, Renner hit Morris for 15 yards, which would have left the Tar Heels with fourth down. But he fumbled after coming down with the ball, upheld on review, and was recovered by Adrian Bushell at North Carolina's 45.
Seven plays later Bridgewater hit Eli Rogers for a 15-yard score with the sophomore alone for the final 10. A rout was building at that point, and the Cardinals didn't let up.
Louisville went into sustained-drive mode, at least by its standards. The Cardinals went 84 yards but in just five plays, highlighted by Bridgewater's 36-yard crossing pass to Andrell Smith for first down at the Tar Heels' 44 and an 11-yarder to Scott Radcliffe.
Wright carried twice for the final 33 yards, capped by a 12-yard run. The next one went 10 plays and 69 yards, ending with Nick Heuser's 4-yard TD pass from Bridgewater.
"Last week we learned to come out and put our foot on the gas from the start," Bridgewater said. "This week, we learned we have to finish."
North Carolina got on the board with Renner's 44-yard scoring pass to Morris, cutting the lead to 29-7. The junior also hit Eric Ebron for a 2-yard TD in the third quarter and Highsmith for a 9-yard score early in the fourth.